Multinational businessman and politician Ram Gidoomal talks about 'translating' the gospel in today's world.
The popular conception of a missionary as a pale-skinned, pith-helmeted traveler in a distant, "primitive" land is amazingly hard to dislodge. Ram Gidoomal fits none of these stereotypes. But he is certainly on a mission, if not many missions at once. Having arrived in London as a refugee from India by way of Africa, Gidoomal chose Imperial College for his undergraduate degree, because it was a short bus ride from his family's shop. Today, after building several successful businesses and running twice for Mayor of London, he has built a reputation as a tireless social entrepreneur whose activism encompasses race relations, financial opportunity, and environmental sustainability in Britain and South Asia, as well as Christian ministry among the South Asian diaspora. He spoke with the Christian Vision Project's editorial director, Andy Crouch, over lunch at his alma mater—where he is now a member of the board of governors—with the wide-ranging enthusiasm of someone who has spent his life exploring our "big question" for 2007: What must we learn, and unlearn, to be agents of God's mission in the world?
You come from a Hindu religious background and attended Muslim schools in Africa, yet you became a follower of Jesus during your studies at university.
At the university, I was out of the family context, with the need for something that could make sense of the wider world in which I found myself. I started reading about Jesus. I was intrigued by the strong basis for his historical existence.
In my cultural context, the biggest religious problem is your karma: your karmic debt. What you sow, you reap. You come to this earth with a karmic account, then you die and you're reincarnated, and that depends on how you've done in this life. When I read about Jesus' death on the Cross, it wasn't so much the sacrifice for sin that struck me as the sacrifice for karma. The Christians I met spoke of sin in this life, but that was meaningless to me. Karma was what mattered. So I decided, When they talk about sin, I think of karma, and I believe Jesus died for my karma, so I am going to accept him on those terms.
As my mother and others in my family challenged my faith, I found that biblical concepts were only helpful if they were properly translated. My mother would say, "Jesus is a swear word. They use it in the shop every day. Why do you follow this man?" She had followed a guru called Ramakrishna Parmahansa from India; then she switched to a guru named Radha Soami. One of the functions of a guru is to give you a mantra, but when she went to the initiation, some people got the mantra and others didn't. She felt some of those who were refused were more deserving than her, and that troubled her.
So when she came to stay with us after our first child was born, she opened one of the Bibles that we had strewn all over the place, and she happened upon this verse, "Whoever comes to me, I will not cast out." She said, "Your Bible is very strange! 'Whoever comes to me'—define whoever!" She had a hard time believing that Jesus would never refuse anybody. But that's the case, I said, because he's the sanatan sat guru.
Sanatan is a Sanskrit word meaning "eternal"; sat guru means "true living way." You can put John 14:6 in brackets after that! He is "the way, the truth, and the life." Guru is a living way. There are lots of sat gurus, but try to find a sanatan sat guru. No guru claims to be sanatan. Then she said, "Tell me more about this guru, who will love everybody." So I said, "Not only is he a sanatan sat guru, he paid for karma. He paid our karmic debt."
There must be many perplexing things for someone who comes to faith as an outsider.
I recall my first visit to church here, my first church ever, St. Paul's Onslow Square. I went to the evening service, so none of my friends or relations would see me going. The first thing I looked for on walking in was the shoebox. I wanted to take my shoes off: This is holy ground, and you're asking me to come in with my dirty, filthy feet and go into the presence of God? This is not right; this is not holy. I must take my shoes off. But they told me there was no place for shoes. So I went to sit on the floor, in the proper position of respect, and the usher said to sit on the wooden bench. Then the organ blasted out, and I thought, Who has died? Because organ music was just for funerals in my mind. It was an alien experience. There's a whole lot of unlearning to be done in asking how we can communicate the message of Jesus with simplicity [in a way] that will take these barriers away.
In the end, I've found I've been able to use my skills in business to help start some of these translations. We've produced a series of books and cds that connect with the South Asian experience. Fortunately, I was able to pay for publication, because in the early days, not many Christian publishers were willing to take on a book that talked about Jesus as the bodhisattva who fulfilled his dharma to pay for my karma to negate samsara and achieve nirvana!
19 May 2007
Christ, My Bodhisattva
I'll comment later on this excerpt of the larger "Christ, My Bodhisattva" article from Christianity Today, Vol. 51, No. 5, May 2007, issue. (Find out what a Bodhisattva does!)